Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday, March 3, 1933


The phone rang just as Bubba put his coffee cup back down on the desk and then picked up the percolator and set it on the old cast iron stove with his one hand left behind after the disastrous day when the cotton gin snatched away his other clean up to the shoulder.

Two longs and a short. Two longs and a short.

It meant he should go to meet the chief of police at the funeral home. Someone had died under mysterious, suspicious, or violent circumstances.

The chief didn't like to talk about these things on the phone with Central listening in.

At the storefront, in the little coffee room behind the office and the room where they displayed the caskets and suits, gowns, and burial shirts, the cop sat at a table with a steaming cup of coffee. He pointed to the chair next to him as he began to speak in a very low voice.

The father, the mother and the three kids, he said. All dead.

He got a folded note out of his shirt pocket and smoothed it on the table top for Bubba to read it.

It said the bank took the house, then they moved into the supply room behind the office of the filling station - the whole family - where they lived until the credit ran out and they pumped the last of the gasoline and sold the last of the cigarettes and then the oil distributor came by in his Model A and had him come sit in the car while he told him he would have to ask them to move out of the station.

They would be living in the car from that day forward.

There was no explanation as to why the man shot the four of them before he turned the gun on himself.

Bubba wrote down their names in his notebook, making a note of the age of each of the kids and reading back the spelling of the dead man's last name to make dead sure he had it dead right.

When he put the car in the garage, he sat for a moment listening to the sudden silence in which he hot engine ticked over as it cooled; he could smell the hot oil in the skillet on the stove across the yard where she fried eggplant and onions from the winter garden. He turned up the back sidewalk to the kitchen door, loosening his tie and taking off his collar as he walked.

In the dining room, he set down his briefcase on the desk and hung his jacket on the hat rack. Then he poured himself a stiff drink of bourbon into a water glass, carefully replacing the pint bottle in a desk drawer before belting the fiery whiskey neat and looking all around the room beyond where the kids lay on the carpet on their bellies in front of the Victrola, listening to the news on the NBC network, the oldest boy idly scratching the dog behind the ears.

Then he reached under the paperwork in the drawer and picked up his grandfather's old 1873 Colt Peacemaker, checked to make sure the five rounds were still loaded in the cylinder, and walked through the back door and down the steps to the yard beyond.

He took one last look back at the house where he saw her through the window over the kitchen sink.

She smiled, then assumed a horrified expression as she watched while he raised the pistol and aimed it at his head where,, in his mind's eye, he looked around the conference table at the bank for the last time and saw the dull pain in the eyes of the board members as they told him they had no choice but to declare a bank failure, the assets and cash reserves less than the obligations to depositors, etc.


Just as the street lights came on, Frank could see the electric blue fire of the interurban tram, smell its ozone, see the flash from the electrodes tracking the overhead wires just visible through the second-floor windows of the law offices where he swept and mopped, dusted – emptied waste baskets filled with dusty pencil shavings, cigar and cigarette butts, tubercular tissues and tidied the detritus of the week-long clutter of the practice of law, its ink-stained papers and all such cast off and away from the clean and smoothed-out files. (click here for the rest of the story)

The pneumonic weather of the Texas prairie, freezing norther and silky summer-like spring rains alternated with sunshine and coated him with a fine sweat rushing headlong through the mechanics of finishing the part-time chores paying depression-era change.

He finished, shut and made sure the brassy spring-loaded lock snapped past its brass striker to its chiseled socket under the frosted-glass panes of the old hardwood door frame and skipped down the worn treads of the steep old stairway to the street on the square where little old men in suits and fedoras stood stretching and arranging their topcoats and lighting their cigars for the walk home after their business week in the city.


The western horizon peeping out over the cotton compress and its bonded warehouses, the Katy tracks, the fading blue on blue of the skies promising the inky blackness of the midnight to come shed its last orange light as he turned up the sidewalk to the east and home and heard someone calling his name over his shoulder.

On the corner across the wide old street stood a squat Irishman with a protruding belly and tufts of stage-white hair sticking out over his ears, beckoning, saying, “Come here, boy! You, Frank! Come here!”

A lawyer, theatrical and showy with a gift of the gab and an old school knowledge of the world of deeds and titles, rights and privileges, precedent and prudence, he smiled and held his hands at shoulder height on each side of his body, saying, “Ho, boy! You're Dr. MacDonald's young-un, aren't you? Frank?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. I just wanted the doctor to know something, okay? Listen here, son. Look here, now...”

He gestured with the cigar in his left hand, pointing to the Doric columns of a narrow bank building on the opposite corner.

“If your daddy has any money in that bank...”

He whirled and pointed the cigar at a plain-front brick number on the opposite corner, “or that bank, over there.”

He whirled again, pointed catty-cornered across the street, said, “Or that one, yonder.”

He paused for effect, looked at Frank out of a face grown old, his narrow Irish eyes over a pug nose and the shadow of afternoon whiskers, said, “Tell him to get busy and write checks against every penny, pay every bill he can pay, either all or part, y'hear?”


“Just tell him that if he has any money in any of these banks, state-chartered or private, to be sure and write checks against his balance tonight and get the payments in the mail so they are post-marked tomorrow, Saturday.”


“Because those banks are not going to open on Monday morning. The President is going to close them on an emergency basis – a national emergency bank holiday.”


“Yeah. Keep folks from running on the bank. A panic. Take out their deposits and hoard the money in the mattress. You know.”

“How do you know that Mr. ______?”

“Because I have a lot of very good friends in Washington, D.C. - very wise men, one and all - and they sent me this here telegram, y'see?”

He smiled, grinned broadly.

He used a mocking tone in his voice as he testified as to the wisdom of his very good friends in Washington, D.C.

Grabbed the yellow envelope out of his topcoat pocket and thrust it toward Frank. They both stood looking down at the flimsy little yellow envelope, as if it had some power in and of itself, symbol as it were of disaster, death, ill fortune following the tracks and the telegraph wires.

“Don't ya' see, boy?”

“Yes, sir, I think I do see what you mean. Yes. Uh huh. Thank you. I will tell him.” Frank walked away, eager to get home and tell his father what he had heard.

He felt that heady rush of adrenaline, felt it power his steps and forced himself not to break into a brisk jog, pacing his steps as the blood sang in his ears.

It was the first of many times that he was to feel fear – really fundamental fear – over the next few years.

As he walked away, the old lawyer was already turning, beckoning to a man driving by in an open touring car, his palm turned down, patting the air in a sign that said to stop the car, that he wanted to talk to him.

At home, his father sat in his chair gazing over his reading spectacles as he lowered the afternoon paper, his expression quizzical, questioning.

“Sam said that? Tell me again,” he said with some hesitation. “He got a telegram. From whom?”

“He said they were very wise men - in Washington, D.C.”

His father looked over his glasses with a wry smile. Said, “Very wise men, huh? Very wise...”

And then came the pistol shot from the back yard next door.

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